Groundlings pelting pippins at Hamlet

Academics and teachers ask us to revere Shakespeare as the greatest of English writers but ironically they damage him by creating a false perception that his work is high-brow. Over the many years that I have watched Shakespeare plays and read about him and his works. The thing that comes out most clearly to me is that he was much, much cleverer than that.

Shakespeare understood his audience far more acutely than we are taught. While he was telling tragic stories about the lives of kings or funny stories about the twists of love he was at the same time making bawdy puns about sex, farts and drunkenness to make sure he didn’t lose the majority of his audience.

Who was Shakespeare’s audience?

It is well-known that the theatre goers at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre where not only the gentlemen and ladies sitting comfortably in the stalls but the commoners—working men and apprentices of the east of London—standing in the pit on cobblestones and amongst the apple cores and other rubbish. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), another playwright of the period and one of Shakespeare’s rivals, describes the makeup of their audiences:

The wise and many headed bench
That sits upon the life and death of plays, is
Composed of gamester, captain, knight, knight’s man
Lady or pucelle, that wears mask or fan,
Velvet or taffeta cap, rank’d in the dark,
With the shop’s foreman, or some such brave spark,
That may judge for his sixpence.

The pit of the Globe Theatre could hold 500 people and it cost a penny (about a tenth of the daily wage and the price of a loaf of bread) to join the large crowd. In joining it you became a groundling.

Who were the groundlings?

Groundling is probably another Shakespeare pun comparing the lowest paying theatre-goers packed into the pit to fish in a barrel; grundels and grundlings (grund being equal to ground) being a type of fish perhaps related to the Old English word gryndle for herring.

The groundlings were also known as stinkards or penny-stinkers as they smelled of garlic and sweat having come directly from their workplaces (the apprentices not always with the permission of their bosses). John Marston (1575-1634) satirist and playwright described them as:

… choked with the stench of garlic … pasted to the balmy jacket of a beer- brewer.

What is pippin-pelting?

Elizabethan audiences, whether groundling of well-to-do, were very different to modern audiences—they did not watch in reverential silence, tut-tutting the noisy whisperers, sweet-wrapper rustlers and heavy breathers. Elizabethan audiences booed the villians, cheered the heroes and pippin-pelted (threw apples at) the actors if they didn’t like them.

The playwrights and actors during those times were very much more involved in a dialogue with their audiences. We understand Shakespeare’s asides and soliloquys where he shares secrets with the audience but do we really understand the fun that the audience would have had as they were insulted by Hamlet (Hamlet Act 3 Scene 2)? Would they have pelted pippins?

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.

Or by a porter in Henry VIII (Act 5 Scene 4):

These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse,
and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but
the Tribulation of Tower-hill, or the Limbs of
Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.

But in this Shakespeare was outdone by Henry Crosse in his Vertues Commonwealth; or Highway to Honour (1603) who gave his audience this assessment:

…the commonest haunters are for the most part, the leaudest persons in the land, apt for pilferie, periurie, forgerie, or any regories, the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, thieves cutpurses, shifters, cousoners; briefly an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers…for a play is like a sinke in town; whereunto all the filth doth runne: or a byle in the body, that draweth all the humours into it.

Good reason to believe that the appreciation of Shakespeare and the theatre was never meant to be quite as reverential as it is now (I have an urge to throw a pippin at the leading actor)!